Researching Rebel Hart
When writing Rebel Hart, Jackie and I did not have a ready-made outline (or timeline) in place as we had for Broken Drum. Nancy Hart’s story deals with a lesser known aspect of the Civil War—not the main battles, but rather the struggles of the common people in a border region where the sympathies were divided.
We were fortunate to live close enough to travel to all the areas we were writing about. We began by calling the chambers of commerce and historical societies of the towns of Summersville, Richwood, and Spencer, West Virginia. Through our conversations, we were given the name of Susan Johnson, a high school English and drama teacher, who had written a play about Nancy Hart. Susan was incredibly generous with the information and newspaper articles she had collected. Through her, we learned about Nancy’s granddaughter, Myrtle Hollandsworth, who was still living at age 95. We hoped to actually meet her when we traveled to West Virginia, but at that time she said, “I ain’t gonna talk to no more strangers ‘bout my Mamaw.”
We did, however, get a newspaper article which described how, in 1910, Myrtle had stood on the bridge in Richwood, WV with her grandmother Nancy and watched a comet in the sky. Nancy called the comet a “bad omen of another great war about to start.” We had found conflicting reports of Nancy’s age and dates of her death (one as early as 1902), but because of this specific memory, we decided to start our story with this incident.
Again, as when researching Broken Drum, it was important for us to study the terrain we were writing about. We drove the winding back roads through the mountains and valleys. The first time we visited was in early autumn when the leaves were still on the trees. Later, because a portion of our story takes place in winter, my husband and I went back to central West Virginia to see what it was like in January with snow on the ground and the trees bare. I looked at the spiny ridges with their humps and dips and stark trees and could see why there was no way for the Rebel Raiders to travel undetected in the wintertime.
We did have to fictionalize some events to round out the story, but in our research we learned some amazing incidents in which Nancy Hart was involved. Once, when Nancy visited her pregnant sister, the Union soldiers suspected Nancy was in the area and searched the house. Her sister, Mary, hid Nancy in a large pillow bolster case, stitched it closed, and leaned back against her on the bed.